REALIZING that purpose in the organic world is too obvious to
be denied, followers of those more recent schools said to have
superseded mechanism, have attempted to save materialism
with another equally desperate theory. They cannot bring
themselves to admit that the structure and behaviour of living
organisms are more determinate than anything in the inorganic world. So they declare that in this world, too, the
course of events is determined partly by the requirement that
things shall serve a purpose. They adopt a teleology as all-embracing as any to be found among theologians.
This theory is concisely expressed though not supported by
E. S. Russell in his book Form and Function on page 180,
where he presents the views of Schwann: "True," he writes,
"the purposiveness of living processes cannot be denied; but
its ground lies according to this (the materialistic) view, not
in a vital force which guides and makes the individual life
but in the original creation and collocation of matter according to a rational plan. The purposiveness of life is part of the
purposiveness of the universe." The same universal teleology
is found in the philosophy of the late J. S. Haldane and we have
come across it in other less distinguished writers. It seems to
have begun to permeate the thought of biologist-philosophers.
While this teleology looks very much like that adopted by
many theologians the explanation given for it is different.
The theologians attribute the purposiveness they see in the
Universe to a non-material deity, whereas Schwann, Haldane
and other biologists have attributed it to Matter alone. They
believe that it is in the nature of Matter unaided to produce
structures and behaviour which serve some purpose.
We engineers may well wish they were right. We could
then save a great deal of time and money. If it really were in
the nature of Matter unaided to meet the requirements of the
labyrinthine organ, surely it would also be in its nature to meet
the comparatively simple requirements of the governor of a
steam engine. We should be misguided when we laid down
expensive assembly shops and paid away high wages to fitters
and foremen. Instead of interfering with Matter as we do, we
ought to allow it to follow its own nature. Perhaps it would
then assemble itself into better governors than our clumsy
methods can devise!
Of course, we shall be told that we are too literal minded
and that no biologist-philosopher would attribute to Matter
everywhere and at all times the skill and accomplishment
which go to the making of a labyrinthine organ. Maybe
adherents of this form of teleology think that Matter can only
achieve this difficult task when it enters the organic world
and that the purposiveness of the Universe is manifested in
different ways in the inorganic world.
But if we misinterpret the biologist-philosophers it is not
for lack of an effort on our part to understand them nor for
lack of a diligent search for a statement in sufficiently concrete
and specific terms to make their meaning clear. If they had
provided examples to show how in the inorganic world the
purposiveness of the Universe is manifest it would help their
readers considerably. But such illustrations as might lead to
clarity are always lacking. Instead, we have to make the best
we can of general and rather abstract statements. Once again
we are in the distasteful position of having to guess at what
may be meant, only to find that each possible interpretation is
too absurd to merit serious consideration.
We regret the necessity all the more because we are bound
to create the impression that we are "thrashing the donkey
overlong". However (if we be allowed to continue the
metaphor) we should remember the proverbial character of
the animal. Materialist philosophies are held with great
obstinacy. We should also recall that this particular donkey
does not carry on its back the philosophies of nonentities, but
those of men of high eminence in their own fields of study.
New theories wherewith to justify materialism have been
coming along thick and fast in recent years. If we did not deal
faithfully with every possible interpretation of each of them
we should not complete the task which we have set ourselves.
We have now before us the theory that the whole Universe
is purposive, that this purposiveness arises from the nature of
Matter alone and that it explains the preservation of the living
individual and its species. Before we give our reasons for
rejecting this theory we must seek to understand in what ways
purposiveness is supposed to be displayed by substance which
is not alive.
Possibly Professor H. Levy provides a clue. In The Web of
Thought and Action he says on page 161: "We tend falsely to
isolate the individual and the environment as if they were
separate entities, when, in fact, they are intimately interconnected." Levy and followers of the same school cannot
mean that we tend falsely to deny that the individual depends
on its environment for food and shelter, or that we tend to
deny that evolution constitutes adaptation to environment, or
that we tend to deny that in building nests and constructing
burrows individuals influence their environment. For no one
denies that there is this sort of interconnection. If Levy meant
to say anything worth saying, it must be that the interconnection between the individual and the environment is more
intimate than is commonly supposed, so intimate that it is
wrong to isolate the one from the other.
The late J. S. Haldane expressed a very similar view in his
various books. In The Philosophy of a Biologist he said: "The
maintenance of co-ordination is present, just as much in the
relation between organism and environment as in the relation
between the parts of an organism itself. We cannot separate
in space the phenomena of Life itself from those of its environment." In a Symposium before the Aristotelian Society on
"Life and Finite Individuality", again he said: "Practically,
therefore, we must look upon organism and environment as
one interconnected whole, which, as a matter of empirical
fact, tends to maintain itself, just as a crystal and its mother-liquor do, or a molecule and the solution in which it has
formed." Professor Levy would, no doubt, also claim that
his views about the helpfulness of Matter are not fancy but
"a matter of empirical fact".
In the same Symposium, D'Arcy W. Thompson too expressed much the same view. Speaking of the way an organism
comes to be preserved he said: "When the parent tissues have
ceased to nourish it, it is not left alone. All the forces of nature
impinge and react upon it, together they nourish it; they
mould it and conform it; the sun shines upon it; the air bathes
it; it is a mechanism, but only part of a greater mechanism,
and the mechanism of which it is a portion is the world."
Levy's view that people have falsely tended to isolate the individual and the environment has clearly been shared by other eminent authorities.
At least until quite recently a Darwinian would have found
good reasons for isolating the individual from. the environment. He would, for instance, have said that the things which
the individual does were purposive and that the things which
the environment does were not purposive. Before the advent
of what we will call "the new teleology", it was universally
accepted that the individual makes an effort to preserve its
life while the environment does not collaborate in any way.
If the individual and the environment were so intimately connected that the one could not be isolated from the other it
would be true, among other things, that in meeting the purposes of self-preservation and race-preservation each had an
equal share. The new teleology is best described as biocentric.
We know of no recent discovery, of no "matter of empirical
fact" in any science which suggests that the individual and the
environment are more intimately interconnected than was
previously supposed. It appears that all biologists isolated the
one from the other quite happily until it occurred to some of
them that this isolation was incompatible with materialism.
This seems to be the one and only justification for the theory
that there is a purposiveness in the whole Universe directed to
keeping the individual alive and maintaining the species. The
theory seems to be based on faith and not on facts. We can
think of innumerable instances where the behaviour of the
individual is determined by the need to keep itself alive. But
we can think of no instances where the behaviour of the
environment is determined by the need to keep the individual
An animal may travel a distance in order to obtain food. But
the food does not travel a distance in order to reach the animal.
A drop of water in a puddle certainly obeys the laws of physics
and chemistry. But it does not also obey any law by which it
is required to quench the thirst of a chicken. But the chicken
does obey such a law when it seeks and drinks the drop of
water. When we find a bird's nest we do not say that it is due
to what the twigs have done. We know it is due only to what
the birds have done. It is in the nature of the individual to
help itself, but it is not in the nature of the environment to help
itself, or to help the individual, or to help anything at all
for that matter. It is obvious to us all that every living thing
has some mastery over its environment while every lifeless
thing can never be thought of otherwise than at the mercy of
its environment. In this sense things belonging to the organic
world can be described as active and those belonging to the
inorganic world as passive.
For these reasons the common man has no doubt that the
specific behaviour of the individual is sufficient to isolate it
from the environment. Our most "up-to-date" biologist-philosophers alone say that he is wrong to think so. What
these say is exactly what Walt Disney pretends in his animated
cartoons. If in a "Silly Symphony" showing birds building a
nest the twigs were represented as becoming helpful we should
laugh at the absurdity. The best Disney joke is always the
assumption of a bio-centric teleology, the suggestion that the
lifeless environment becomes active and assumes mastery,
the representation of an intimate interconnection between the
individual and the environment. Do our latest biologist-philosophers believe that Walt Disney portrays the higher truth?
We do not want merely to set up a dummy in order to
knock it down. We want to understand what the eminent
biologists mean who talk of the purposiveness of the Universe
and the impossibility of isolating the individual from the environment, and we want to do justice to their real theories
and not only to what we may erroneously think that they
mean. So, having failed to find a plausible illustration in the
printed word we once again had recourse to conversation.
We asked a biologist friend who inclines towards the bio-centric teleology what it constitutes.
He explained that we had misinterpreted this theory. We
had been wrong, he said, in supposing that the purposiveness
of the Universe is manifest in the behaviour of lifeless substance.
He said that we could detect it only in the immutable laws of
physics and chemistry, and the properties of Matter.
As an example, he mentioned the temperature at which
water has its greatest density. This is 4O C. The result, he
pointed out, is that in a lake the water which is just cold enough
to freeze floats on that which is a little warmer. Ice first forms
on the surface and provides a blanket which retards further
freezing. This allows the bulk of the water to remain liquid
even during a severe winter. Were water, like most liquids,
to become denser right down to the temperature of solidification, lakes would freeze quickly and from the bottom upwards.
During every cold spell aqueous plants and fish would be entombed in sohd ice. Freshwater life as we know it could not exist outside the tropics.
We had met this view before. Those preachers express it
who say that the purpose of the sun is to give us heat and
light and that, for the occasion when the sun is not shining, a
moon has been provided; who tell us that in the earth's atmosphere oxygen is diluted with exactly that proportion of nitrogen which makes the air most fit for breathing; who declared
in more boisterous times that certain oak-trees possess a cork
bark to enable port to be bottled adequately. This is a milder
form of teleology than that portrayed in a Walt Disney cartoon. For it declares that the purposiveness of the Universe
goes no further than to provide those laws and properties of
Matter which make for a world fit for organisms to live in.
We cannot conceive how those who speak of purpose in the
inorganic world can mean less than this.
Indeed, they must mean a great deal more. For this very
mild form of teleology does not represent the individual and
the environment as intimately interconnected. It leaves them
isolated. It denies that the behaviour of the environment
adapts itself to the immediate and ever changing needs of the
individual, that the environment is ever helpful, ever ready to
meet an emergency, while we know that the behaviour of
the individual is adapted from moment to moment to its immediate and ever changing needs. Thus, no bio-centric teleology less thorough than that represented in the "Silly Symphonies" could save materialism.
Besides, we must reject even the modest teleology which
attributes purpose to the properties of water. When our
friend mentioned how good these are for living things we were
reminded of the schoolboy who remarked during a geography
lesson how well it had been arranged that a big river always
flows through a city. He attributed purposiveness to the river
just as our friend attributed purposiveness to the properties
of water. The proper answer to the schoolboy is that the
rivers were there before the towns. The happy conjunction
of the two is not due to the purposiveness of the rivers but
to the purposiveness of the men who built the towns. The
same answer must be given to the bio-centric teleologist. The
properties of water are older than any freshwater fish. If
these properties are due to any purposiveness it must have
been of a far-sighted character.
Our sense of proportion alone ought to make us suspicious
of any form of bio-centric teleology. For the Universe is vast
indeed. The corner in which living organisms eke out a
precarious existence is but a minute fraction of the whole.
This corner is confined to a region on or near the earth's surface. The earth is but a tiny speck in the solar system. Our
sun is but one among millions in the galaxy and there are
millions of galaxies.
If the laws of physics and chemistry have been devised in
the spirit of hospitality, all we can say is that the work has
been done badly. Most regions of space are so inhospitable
that the hardiest organisms could not live there. For every
law, principle or property of Matter which a bio-centric
teleologist could describe as good, his opponent could mention a dozen which could by the same standard only be called
bad. To those who claim, that the laws of physics and chemistry
make for a world fit for organisms to live in we have to answer:
"Yes, but only just".
The truth is that we have to regard Matter as neither
benevolent nor malevolent but, with the eyes of the physicist,
as indifferent. Life deals with Matter as it finds it and makes
the best of the prevailing circumstances, just as those who
build cities make the best of the geographical features which
happen to occur in their country.
This is why, in spite of the views which have begun to permeate the thought of
biologist-philosophers, we still isolate
the individual and the environment, why we deny that each
is adapted to the other as a lock is to its key and the key to
its lock. We still believe that the individual is specifically
adapted to its environment, but not that the environment has
ever become or ever was specifically adapted to the needs
of the individual. We still do not believe in any sort of more
intimate interconnection between the two than that which
men have always appreciated. We regard adaptation as a
purely one-sided affair.
We say that one-way adaptation has caused the eyes of
animals to be sensitive to light of the wavelength emitted by
the sun: that one-way adaptation has caused their lungs to be
suited to the proportion of oxygen to nitrogen found in the
air; that one-way adaptation has caused their bones and
muscles to be of just the strength needed on a planet with the
mass of the earth. We know of no evidence which could
support the view that the continued existence of living things
is due to the purposiveness of the Material Universe.
Lest we have still failed to represent the new teleology
fairly we will add that we also reject any and every conceivable theory which declares that it is in the nature of Matter
unaided to manifest purpose of any kind whatever. In our
view the materialist, progressive as he often is in the field of
biology, returns to the Middle Ages with his theories about
the nature of Matter.
In those days students of nature attributed to the laws of
physics and chemistry as wide a range of varied purpose as it
is possible to imagine. In addition to an anthropo-centric and
a bio-centric teleology they believed in another form which
was neither. For they thought that the purpose of many
things was to serve some abstract idea. For instance, they said
that the purpose of the mercury rising in a barometer was to
fill a vacuum, because of the horror felt by nature at a vacuum.
Celestial bodies were supposed to move in circles with the purpose of tracing out the most perfect path known to geometry. Nature was believed to adore a circle.
Possibly, if modern materialists specified the purposes which
they attribute to lifeless Matter, we should find that these
differed from the purposes which medieval scientists believed
in. But they would be no more acceptable to the physicists
and engineers of to-day.
An astronomer does not discuss what function in the solar
system is performed by Saturn; he does not consider whether
a better purpose would be served if the perihelion of Mercury
did not advance quite so rapidly; he does not ask whether so
many spots are good for the Sun. To the astronomer a solar
system without Saturn would merely be a slightly different
system equally interesting to study. For the physicist an atom
which has lost one of its electrons is not to be regarded as
having suffered a loss; it does not appear as something less fit
to go on existing; it is not an incomplete organism; it is merely
an ionized atom. If an atom of radium explodes it is not
regarded as something which has died, but merely as something which has changed. We should think it no more than
playfully fantastic to suggest that the rivers compensate the
sea for its loss by evaporation or that the function of the clouds
is to adjust the amount of water received by the rivers. If
anything whatever in the untouched world of lifeless things
changes, we neither consider that it is improved nor damaged.
Put briefly, things do not happen in the inorganic world for
any purpose; they just happen.
The engineer knows this just as well as the physicist. If a
machine of his serves a purpose he knows that this has not been
imposed by the Universe but by those who ordered the
machine to be built. He knows that he cannot look for purposefulness in unaided Matter, for if he neglects his machinery
it soon ceases to serve a purpose. The world of machinery, if
left uncontrolled for long, would become like the physicist's
world, a world in which things happen without function, purpose, adjustment or compensation. It would cease to be a world
of machinery; it would become a world of scrap iron.
Machinery does not work because nature has a horror of scrap
iron, but because engineers have.
Something like the destruction of a machine occurs when
a living body dies. The adjustments and compensations cease.
Organs no longer serve their previous purposes. The body
becomes part of the physicist's world, a collection of uncoordinated bits of matter. The analogy to a machine is no
longer apt. An influence is at work in each individual which
tries to avoid this. It is sometimes called the Will to Live, or
the Instinct of Self-preservation. Were we to attribute it to
a Universal Principle applicable to the whole of the Material
Universe we should imply that nature has a horror of corpses.
But no one would take this suggestion seriously. We can all
agree that the Will to Live has a different origin. What it is,
is a part of the problem of the nature of Life.
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